Two Hits and a Miss from Tilson Thomas

United StatesUnited States Ives, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky: Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Philadelphia Orchestra, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 20.2.2016 (BJ)

Ives: Decoration Day, from A Symphony: New England Holidays
Brahms: Serenade No. 2 in A major, Op. 16
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17, “Little Russian”

Michael Tilson Thomas was graciously substituting for James Levine in this concert, but he sometimes gives the impression of thinking he is Leonard Bernstein, so it was no surprise that he began the evening by introducing Ives’s Decoration Day with explanatory remarks along Bernsteinian lines. His comments were both illuminating and touching, and his way of segueing seamlessly from introduction into actual performance was dramatically effective.

What ensued was perhaps the best playing of the evening, with soaring string lines and remarkably delicate percussion touches in the quieter parts of the work, and suitably razzmatazz exuberance in the big fast loud section that, characteristically for Ives, precedes the brief soft envoi.

I have had occasion recently, by the way, to complain of the “one-damn-thing-after-another” structure—or non-structure—of Webern’s Im Sommerwind and Myaskovsky’s Tenth Symphony. Why, you may be wondering, am I not leveling the same complaint at Decoration Day? Well, the answer is simply that it is one thing to end up with a form like that when you think you are engaged in logically cogent musical argument; but Ives, under no such illusion, erected the bits-and-pieces technique into a basic principle of his musical method, and in that context it speaks entertainingly for itself.

“Big,” “fast,” and “loud” certainly serve accurately enough as descriptions of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, but the work also includes a second movement in moderate tempo with largely restrained dynamics, whose deliberately mechanistic march character recalls some of the antiquarian nostalgia Mahler sometimes indulged in. This, too, was very well played, Tilson Thomas drawing just the right tick-tock effect from the orchestra.

It happens that none other than Leonard Bernstein was on the podium for the Tchaikovsky Second at the first orchestral concert I reviewed as the newly appointed music critic of the Chicago Daily News. That, part of a New York Philharmonic touring engagement, was a stunning performance. In particular, the stertorous incursions by the low brass that set the finale alight still sound vividly in my memory all of 49 years later. If Tilson Thomas achieved nothing of quite that incandescent standard, he nevertheless led a compelling and sufficiently exciting account of the symphony. And, as throughout the evening, there was some superb solo playing by all the usual suspects in the woodwind and brass sections, topped by spectacular skirls from Kazuo Tokito’s piccolo. However, I did feel that, in the usually immaculate Jennifer Montone’s important horn solo at the start of the symphony, the phrasing was a tad “ebb-and-flow” eccentric and the intonation in the folk-song theme somewhat questionable: were those flattened sixths of the minor scale really quite flat enough?

The big disappointment of the evening, however, was the Brahms Second Serenade. This charming early work offers prophetic hints of the mature composer’s melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic gifts, but the altogether muddy performance Tilson Thomas directed made it sound like a positively second-rate piece. The textures were so unclear that the tunes hardly ever emerged to advantage.

I wonder how far this may have been a result of the conductor’s curious decision to seat the viola section—there are no violins in the piece—curled around him and mostly behind the cellos, or again of a stick technique that often had him beating at about knee level. There is another conductor, Christian Thielemann, who has the same habit, and in neither case is it possible to understand the point of wielding the baton at a level where surely not more than seven or eight members of the orchestra can possibly see it.

Bernard Jacobson

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